Robert McCammon is the author of A Boy’s Life, Stinger, Swan Song, Gone South, and several other highly readable horror novels. He has also written his share of short stories, and it is to one of these that we turn in this post, that we may learn from another master of the genre in its rather abbreviated form.
For those who have not read his short story, “The Thang,” which originally appeared in Hot Blood (1989), a volume of erotic horror, a summary is in order:
This story is almost entirely situational. There is little development of character. It is similar to a medieval fabliaux, in which the foolishness of a protagonist is highlighted and exemplified by his or her behavior, which is motivated by a simple desire to engage in sex. This desire is, in turn, usually frustrated or complicated by another character, often with the result that the protagonist is humbled, if no wiser. These cautionary tales sometimes end with the statement of an explicit moral, but, just as often, they conclude without making their messages clear. It is difficult to imagine how a reader could not conclude for him- or herself the moral of a story like “The Thang.”
Dave Nielson has traveled 700 miles to visit a magic shop in New Orleans, where he hopes to find a solution to his problem (nature was not generous in endowing him with the essentials of masculinity). He hopes a voodoo practitioner may be able to help him. He meets one, Miss Fallon, at the shop, who offers to remedy his anatomical deficiency, asking for half her $300 fee up front and the rest after Dave has seen the results. She mixes him a drink, replying to his query as to its ingredients, “You don’t want to know.”
After he manages to drink the potion, Miss Fallon orders him to return to her after the weekend, eating nothing, meanwhile, but gumbo and oysters. Dave rents a room in a nearby motel.
He feels “different” almost immediately, and is able--or imagines himself to be able--to hear “the blood racing in his veins.” However, when he checks himself, he is distressed to see that his problem remains. He sees a gentleman’s club across the street from his motel, and he decides that, since he’s unable to sleep, he may as well enjoy the show. “Without thinking,” he orders a beer.
Aroused by a dancer, his manhood springs free, now “the size of a small artillery piece,” his testicles as large as “cannonballs.”
Horrified, Dave flees the club, its patrons terrified of him. He returns to his motel room, where, after having reached a length of 17 inches, Dave’s “thang” returns to its
former puny size. He struggles to prevent himself from having erotic thoughts, but a woman’s announcement, on the street below, that she seeks immediate intimacy with a man causes him to lose control over his libido. As the woman, Ginger, continues to voice her need, Dave struggles with his monstrous organ, causing enough noise to capture the attention of his neighbors, an elderly couple, who, having appeared in the doorway, witness “what appeared to be a naked man fighting a pale python.”
Apparently, they call the desk clerk, because he and a security guard arrive within moments. The clerk declaring, “We don’t permit. . . this kind of behavior in our establishment,” and Dave is summarily evicted. When he arrives to open the magic shop, the shop’s owner, Malcolm, takes one look at Dave, “suitcase in his hand and his shirttail out,” waiting “on deserted Bourbon Street,” and concludes, “You done screwed up, didn’t you?”
When Miss Fallon arrives at the shop, Dave confesses to having drunk a beer, learning the bad news that there is no antidote to the potion that has extended him--not, that is, unless he is willing to allow Miss Fallon and her Aunt Flavia to “experiment” on him by concocting various elixirs. In three months or so, she says, the two women might be able to produce an antidote.
However, there is one not-so-small catch. Dave must agree to become Aunt Flavia’s boarder. She is an unattractive woman, a husky octoroon woman with copper eyes, her long-jawed face like a wrinkled prune,” whose feminine parts are as oversize as Dave’s masculine counterparts--so large, in fact, that Dave is horrified to see “something loose and fleshy was brushing against the front of her caftan, down between her thighs. . . Something very large.”
Men are as obsessed with the size of their genitals, it seems, as women appear to be preoccupied with the dimensions of their breasts. Those of both sexes who find themselves dissatisfied with their endowments in these particulars often seek to enlarge them, whether through the use of chemicals, instruments, or surgery. For many, the results are satisfactory, but, occasionally, something goes wrong, as it certainly does in McCammon’s story. Reducing the whole of himself to a part (or parts) is dehumanizing, and, therefore, absurd. Dave is a grotesque character, because his overriding concern with the size of his manhood in particular and with sexual considerations in general reduce him to silly dimensions as a human being. He is ruled by his libido, which makes, for him, the matter of his endowment of extreme importance. He discovers, only after the trauma of getting what he has wished for, that his dream, having come true, is a nightmare. His having to live with and satisfy the fleshly appetites of a woman who is as self-absorbed with sex as he himself is--or has been--is an ironic penance. However, matters could be much worse, for Dave’s apparent promiscuity obviously makes him susceptible to risks that far outweigh even a nearly uncontrollable phallus the size of a “python.” The gargantuan member seems to symbolize Dave’s own infatuation with sex and size. As the story’s title suggests, Dave’s gargantuan member is itself a manifestation of his obsessive interest in such matters. The story shows--literally--that his obsession with sex and size is monstrous.
He seems more in need of a psychologist than of a pair of voodoo priestesses. McCammon’s bawdy story pokes fun at the proclivity of men in general to be ruled, in sexual matters, by their passions. Dave, for better or for worse, is an everyman, whose sexual obsessions amuse, annoy, mystify, and anger women who can’t understand why a man can’t simply be satisfied with what nature has given to him (even if, in their own cases, they may seek to “enhance” their breasts with surgical implants.) Perhaps McCammon will pen a sequel that focuses upon such damsels in distress.
There is, at times, a fine line between humor and horror, and, in “The Thang,” McCammon has found, if not crossed, this line.